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A novel for children in Sanskrit could change the climate change story – The Indian Express

The conference on climate change held in Egypt produced a consensus document that shows no real way forward. A recent Sanskrit novel for children provides just that. Its author, Radhavallabh Tripathi, is a renowned Sanskrit scholar and writer. I was able to read his Manavi because he has translated it into Hindi. It is the kind of book that could change the world’s direction, provided it is read by millions. If Greta Thunberg were aware of it, she would adopt it as her campaign symbol.

Although the world’s environment is decaying by the hour, it matters little to political leaders. Every global conference gives them a platform to raise their pet issues and score points over rivals. Business interests don’t figure in these gatherings. Sensitivity is not the domain of business, even in the theory of liberalism. It consigns enterprise squarely to spotting opportunities for making profit, even while doing good. No crisis is above that sacred monetary motive; climate change is no exception. The various discourses propagated by the UN to subdue this frightening alarm bell have only served to make the crisis appear manageable with technical solutions.

Radhavallabh Tripathi’s novel compels us to look in a different direction — towards ourselves, the way we live and think. Raghu, the child hero of Manavi, learns this truth the hard way: By going through heartrending dilemmas over his role in Manavi’s distress and survival. Through her existential struggle, we face a terrifying lesson in guilt.

Raghu faces the awful prospect of losing his beloved friend, Manavi, a migratory swan left behind in the month of July in Nandanpur, an Indian village. This young boy does all he can think of, invent and manage, to save his friend from death. Her flock mates have left without her. She got delayed because she wanted to say goodbye to Raghu. Stuck on the hot plains during a prolonged dry monsoon, this Himalayan bird is anxious that her own kin would blame her for coming so close to a human child. Will he prove worthy of her affection? That is the core theme of Tripathi’s novel.

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Tripathi has dedicated the book to India’s legendary ornithologist, Salim Ali, a character in the novel. In fact, the book opens with him. Though it is July, the temperature in parts of Delhi has reached 50 degrees Celsius. Salim Ali has read in a Hindi newspaper that a flock of swans has been spotted in a village in MP. He is sure that there must be a mistake, because by now swans should have flown back to higher latitudes. Wanting to verify the reported sighting, he takes the earliest flight he can find to Bhopal. From there he goes to Nandanpur where the swans were seen.

After this dramatic start, the novel shifts to the swans themselves. Their leader is frantic to leave Nandanpur even though he realises that one of their members is missing. She has gone to see Raghu for one last time. Her companions can delay no longer and fly off without her. Raghu’s long struggle to keep Manavi alive begins.

For the reader, the suspense is unbearable. We traverse every aspect of social life to recognise how difficult it is for Raghu to stand by and help Manavi — alone in an environment no migratory bird would choose to endure. The suspense about Manavi’s fate and Raghu’s struggle to protect her raises this book to the ranks of classics like Meindert DeJong’s Wheel on the School and the recent War Horse by Michael Morpungo. The popularity of these books may prove hard to match, given the state of publishing for children in India.

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But I like to fantasise that a few million copies in different languages of the world, sold over the coming decades, will galvanise the next generations into an unanticipated resolve to save the environment from further decay. Manavi offers the seeds of such a resolve. Its critique of present-day humanity is both harsh and inspiring. Radhavallabh Tripathi spares no domain of contemporary life from surgical probing. The book exposes politics and bureaucracy in equal measure. It lays bare the vain ideology of developmentalism that impels rulers and experts to fiddle with truth to nurture false hopes.

While reading Manavi, we recognise the impasse that environmentalism faces. Its encompassing concerns have been reduced to compressed phrases such as “carbon emission” and “global warming”. These glib phrases inadvertently conceal the thousand other concerns and endeavours of powerless fighters around the world. Their failed campaigns become poignant memories. The demolition of Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar’s old quarters raised some youthful energy to resist, but the plan went through. The debates over genetically modified mustard and the various mega-plans underway in the fragile Himalayan region are instances of unequal battles that the natural environment confronts today. No single phrase, not even “climate change”, can encompass this monstrous reality.

Manavi goes to the heart of the matter— the breakdown of the moral bond between nature and mankind. This bond has now been deftly replaced by a new one — between dispensers of comfort and reminders of concern. The young, with their education crippled, have no chance to make sense of what is going on. The depth of Tripathi’s indignation has given him a creative grip on the crisis. His stature as a scholar of Sanskrit permits him a level of confidence that few contemporary writers can afford. As of now, Manavi has a minuscule readership.

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A prominent educational magazine of children’s literature let it go after a cursory glance. Apparently, the discourse of ecological awareness has frozen around a handful of constructive arousals. The range of emotions Manavi deals with finds little resonance among curricular engineers. They have turned hope into a skill that only excels in encouraging hackneyed innovations. The late Salim Ali, who figures in Manavi as an iconoclastic expert, tells us how to look at things more thoughtfully rather than try to fix them with shoddy bandages.

The writer is former Director of NCERT

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